30 Years of Coens: The Ladykillers

For once, a genuine stinker

Buena Vista Pictures

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Coen brothers' debut, Blood Simple, I’m re-watching their 16 feature films and attempting to jot down observations on one per day, in order of their release. For a fuller explanation of what I’m doing and why, see my first entry, on Blood Simple. (Here, too, are my entries on Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Intolerable Cruelty. The landing page for the whole series is here.)

Notes on The Ladykillers (2004)

• Welcome to the bottom of the trough. Following their trifecta of Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens seemed gradually to be slipping into a rut. Though handsome and intermittently intriguing, The Man Who Wasn’t There was grim and remote; Intolerable Cruelty functioned principally as a star vehicle for George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones and was scarcely recognizable as a Coens film at all. That said, both movies have their charms: I looked forward to re-watching them for this project and I was not disappointed. The Ladykillers, by contrast, I was dreading, and here too my expectations were fully met. It is, by a substantial margin, the worst movie the Coen brothers have ever made.

• As with Intolerable Cruelty, it’s worth noting here that the Coens hadn’t intended to make the movie at all. Their friend and former cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld, had a deal with Disney to relaunch the classic 1955 Ealing Studios comedy The Ladykillers, and he asked the Coens to write the script. When Sonnenfeld ultimately had to back out, the brothers agreed to direct the movie themselves. Whether Sonnenfeld would have made a better picture is impossible to say, of course, but at least a turkey such as this would have been less shocking coming from him. Since branching out on his own as a director following his collaboration on the Coens’ first three films, Sonnenfeld had made some good movies (The Addams Family, Men in Black, Get Shorty) but also some pretty lousy ones (For Love of Money; Wild, Wild West). By contrast, every one of the Coens’ first 10 films had at least something to recommend it. A failure as complete as The Ladykillers—a broad, slack, grating farce that bears little resemblance to the understated original—was completely out of character.

• The movie did offer the Coens another opportunity to work with an A-List star, in this case Tom Hanks. But unlike Clooney, whose comfort with the Coens was immediately evident, Hanks goes over the top with his self-mockery, snorting and chortling his way through the role of Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D. The movie also features Irma P. Hall, J. K. Simmons, Marlon Wayans, Tzi Ma, and Stephen Root. If you look quickly, you can see Bruce Campbell in the background of one scene as a Humane Society worker.

• Following the precept of “If you can’t say something nice…,” I won’t spend time belaboring the manifold shortcomings of The Ladykillers. (Readers interested in the details can read my 2004 review here.) But I do want to note how utterly it fails the Ealing Studios original, not merely in tone but in structure. Both movies concern a professorial mastermind (Alec Guinness in the original, Hanks in the remake) who wheedles his way into the home of a prim landlady in order to commit a robbery with the help of four confederates; when the landlady uncovers their crime, the gang decides to rub her out, a task at which they prove singularly unsuccessful. In the 1955 version, the robbery is quick and straightforward and the bulk of the film is concerned with the criminals’ comically inept efforts to kill an old lady. (Hence, you know, the title of the movie.) In the Coens’ retelling, however, the balance shifts heavily toward the initial heist—itself a dull affair—such that the crooks don’t even decide to kill the landlady until the final 20 minutes of the movie. The comic engine driving the original has somehow been re-engineered into a caboose.

• The movie’s soundtrack, devoted to gospel music, is once again supervised by T Bone Burnett, his third collaboration with the Coens following The Big Lebowski and O Brother. And while it is once again excellent, it feels a bit shoehorned into the proceedings this time around. Or perhaps it’s merely a question of context: While the O Brother score lifts up the movie it accompanies, the Ladykillers’ is dragged down by the tedious mess to which it finds itself shackled.

• This is not the first time the Coens have referenced the original Ladykillers: All the way back in Blood Simple, M. Emmet Walsh’s post-murder line, “Who looks stupid now?” was lifted from the Ealing comedy. The remake also features another nod back to (of course) Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, in a gag—which falls terribly flat this time around—about the portrait of a dead husband that changes expressions depending on circumstances.

• Clearing nearly $40 million in domestic box office, The Ladykillers was not a financial flop like The Hudsucker Proxy or The Man Who Wasn’t There. But it was by far the worst-reviewed film the Coens had ever made. (Though Cannes, as ever, was still on their side, awarding Hall—who is, in her defense, the best thing in the movie—a nonetheless improbable jury prize.) The Coens would not release another feature film for more than three and a half years, the longest gap of their career. As we’ll see tomorrow, they made good use of the time.

Et Cetera:

Where I rank The Ladykillers among Coens films: #16 (out of 16)

Where I rank its soundtrack, curated by T Bone Burnett, among Coens soundtracks curated by T Bone Burnett: #4 (out of four)

Best line: “Othar never blowed no shofar!”

Best visual: The trash bags—and, later, bodies—tumbling through the air and onto the garbage scow

Best sound: The thud of a subterranean explosion

Notable locales: Mississippi

Notable Influences: William Rose (who wrote the original film), Preston Sturges

Dream sequence(s): No

Important scene(s) set in a bathroom: Yes

Deranged (facial) hair: Yes (The Professor)

Number of characters who vomit: Zero

Next up: No Country for Old Men